Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hariyama-san, Center of the World, volume 2: The Tragedy of #37564

Sorry for the wait. The follow-up to this is fairly short and should be up in December.

This story draws on the long tradition of tokusatsu and sentai. I'm not really familiar with them, so there are general notes about names, honorifics, and terms at the end.


The Tragedy of #37564
Genre: Small-Time Combatman




I wanted to be strong.

That was just how I felt.

I didn't need anything else. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

It wasn't like there was anyone I wanted to protect.

It wasn't like I had something to prove.

I just--


I only wanted to be strong, not for any reason at all.


"Can I talk to you?"

The woman spoke as she gently crouched down next to the man. Her cheeks reddened slightly as if she were somewhat embarrassed, and her gaze shifted restlessly, keeping an eye on their surroundings.

"What?"

It was impossible to tell whether or not the man was interested from his voice. In reply, the woman began to speak quietly.

"Umm… I'm going to be promoted."

For the first time, the man looked at the woman's face. As she gazed at him, the woman continued speaking so, so happily -- speaking such strange words with a joyful smile.


"I'm… I'm going to be a kaijin!"


The man did not respond to her words. The woman waited a while for him to react, but at last she gave up and stood.

"U-um, that's all! Sorry… I interrupted you during your break…"

Her laugh contained a tinge of disappointment. Uneasy, the woman turned her back on "him."

But -- just as she was leaving, a brusque voice spoke to her back.

"...Congrats."

"!"

"Work hard."

"...Yeah!"

The woman gave a brighter smile than before and nodded emphatically at the man. It was as if being spoken to by the man made her even happier than being promoted.

However, in the end she could not make out the man's expression.

It wasn't that the place was dark. It was just that -- the man's face was covered by a strange mask.

That's all there was to it.


This was the headquarters of the secret society "Clock."

As could be expected, kaijin and combatmen of the sort that might appear on TV or in manga strolled around this underground facility, constructed further beneath the earth than the depths of Tama Lake.

In a corner of a storehouse tucked into a corner of the headquarters, "he" sat quietly within the darkness.

One of the lower-ranked combatmen at the very bottom of the organization's hierarchy--


Clock's lower-ranked combatman.

He had no name.

He had no past.

He had no future.

He had no hope.

He had no power.

He had no ambition.

He had no rights.

He had no freedom.

There were no choices he could make.

Except for one. To die in the service of the organization.

That was the unwritten rule that governed the combatmen, the organization's disposable tools, or perhaps it was their fate--

--Or it was supposed to be, anyway--

The gears of fate slowly ground to a halt.

All because of the appearance of a single nameless combatman.


Kan-Etsu Expressway, near Tokorozawa, inside a bus

"If you don't stay quiet, we'll start cutting off the heads of the kids in front. Gihi, gihihihihihi!"


It was supposed to be a fun picnic.


"Gihihihi, you brats better not stay quiet!"

The man who laughed coarsely as he yelled had a strange appearance and physique, to the point that he could only be thought of as a monster.

However, that monster's form was very much that of a human. Rather, it was the way he skillfully manipulated his speech that seemed unnatural. His whole body was clad in a red suit, and while his right hand was that of a human, there was a claw stuck to his left hand like that of a crab or crawfish, as large as the end of an excavator.

Standing next to the strange kaijin were two men wearing all black and carrying submachine guns, as well as one man in the bus aisle dressed the same way, standing empty-handed and awaiting orders.

They wore military-style pants dyed black and shirts that fit snugly around their upper bodies. On their heads, they'd put on masks and full-face helmets that combined into a strange sort of headgear, and no part of their bodies was left exposed.

The kaijin had boarded the elementary school bus as it idled in the parking lot, waiting to take the students back after their picnic. Without leaving any room for resistance, the evil organization swiftly and easily hijacked the bus of Year 6, Class 1 of Tokorozawa Saien Private Elementary School.


At first, the children didn't understand what was happening and just looked on blankly. Maybe it was some kind of attraction?

That was what a lot of children thought, but the unpleasantness of the kaijin in front of them made them think that perhaps they were serious.The uneasiness they couldn't shake off was slowly replaced with fear.

"Gihihihihi! You're shit out of luck, brats! We're gonna give you reconstructive surgery and make you into new soldiers of Clock, our secret society!"

He was a strange person who yelled out the name of his own secret society, but most of the children weren't listening.

"Maybe I'll kill off one of you as a warning! If we toss your body out the window while we're going fast, it's gonna do some pretty neat flips when it hits the road!"

As his right hand stroked his crablike left arm, the kaijin raised his voice as if in anticipation.

The children and teachers who were watching didn't think the crab kaijin was joking. Many of the faint of heart trembled visibly in fear.


However -- in one of the back seats, a whispered conversation was going on that held no trace of nervousness.

"Wow! Look, there's a van following our bus! It's gotta be the one that brought these people to the parking lot!"


hariyama2_105.jpg

"Ohh."

One of them was a boy whose eyes were brimming with curiosity. He seemed to be enjoying the situation. The other was a beautiful girl of unknown nationality with yellow-green hair and blue eyes.

Taking an interest in the children's strange conversation, one of the mystery organization's combatmen slowly began walking toward the two.

"Hey, Nacchan… why is that crab guy red? He hasn't been boiled yet."

"Dunno."

As the nonchalant conversation continued, the low-ranked combatman slowly leaned toward the two children sitting in the very back seat and whispered softly, "He's embarrassed because it's his first big job."

At that, the boy and girl finally noticed that the combatman had drawn closer. The boy looked surprised for a second, but then he turned his gaze overflowing with curiosity on to that unnatural mask.

"Wow! Mister, you can say something other than 'Yeeee'?"

The combatman smiled wryly under his mask at the quietly excited boy. Remembering how he himself used to be, the combatman decided to strike up a conversation with the boy, but--

There was the sound of an impact on the roof, and the bus's riders turned to look as one.

Next came a sound like something boiling over -- and then a glowing circle was etched in the roof. The inside of the circle evaporated instantaneously.

The children began to set up a bit of a fuss, not understanding what was going on, but the noise was blown away in the wind coming through the hole in the roof.

"Haa!"

A mighty yell echoed through the bus and a red shadow flew in through the hole.

It wore a full-body red costume. Like the combatmen, its face was hidden, but the design of the form-fitting full face helmet gave off the clear impression of a human face beneath.

The man clothed mostly in red called to the crab kaijin at the front of the bus with painful enthusiasm.

"Stop right there, Clock! I will not allow you to kidnap these children!"

When the mysterious hero spouted those cliched words, the atmosphere within the bus grew even more confused.

The crab kaijin seemed to know the red man, and he smiled daringly as he waved around the pincer on his left arm.

"Ohohoho… idiot, these children are nothing more than a decoy! You were a fool to rush in alone!"

And with those words, a battle began within the cramped space inside the bus. It was a heroic fight scene such as might be seen on TV. The red hero dispatched of his enemies with elegant techniques without allowing any harm to befall the hostages.


'No… that won't happen.'


But the moment that thought crossed "his" mind, the red fighter in front of "him" had already spun around and lashed out with a kick.

He would take out the minion in the back in a single hit and use him as a shield as he charged the two with guns. That was what the red hero was planning.

But "he" -- the combatman talking to the boy and girl in the back of the bus -- thoroughly crushed the plan the red hero had contrived, the hero's belief in his own strength, and… that strength itself.


Thup.


It made only a faint sound -- but that kick, which had enough force to slaughter a horse or a cow, was deflected singlehandedly by the combatman.

"Wha…!?"

The trajectory of his kick changed, the hero's balance completely crumbled. Without letting the opening slip by, the combatman ducked underneath the kick as it cut through thin air and closed in on the red hero.

Separated by only a hair's breadth, he faced the hero and whispered, "Are you an idiot? Are you... trying to get the kids killed?"

"What…!?"

Red froze unthinkingly. Not missing a beat, the crab kaijin triumphantly issued orders to his underlings. "Get him! Now's your chance! Shoot him!"

The subordinates with machine guns put their fingers on the triggers, just as their boss(?), the crab kaijin, had ordered.

"Damn!"

There was no way for him to avoid it. Even if he dodged, the shots would hit the children. ...No, even if he didn't move a muscle, they would certainly be hit by stray bullets.

Are you trying to get the kids killed?

The words that had just now been whispered to him replayed themselves in his head.

Unfortunately, there was no way the hero would be able to stop all the bullets--

The painful truth revealed itself to him: it was not heroic to allow the children, victims of the bus hijacking, to be shot and killed.


--That was what he thought, but--

That worst-case scenario had already been averted by an abnormal development that defied reality.

Just before the bullets were shot at Red -- he felt a wind blow past his body.

A sharp retort.

A second later, the smell of gunpowder smoke filled the inside of the bus. Several of the children screamed and several more passed out in fright.

But -- that was all.


The bullets had already done plenty of damage to the children's spirits, but they did not harm anyone.

The truth of what had just happened was burned into the retinas of the inquisitive boy sitting in the very back seat.

The combatman with the gentle voice who had been talking to him not long ago had lightly brushed off the hero's attack and moved quick as the wind toward the front of the bus--

And as the gunshots rang out, the combatman's arms had seemed to multiply.

Both of the combatman's arms had moved at a speed too fast for the boy's eyes to follow and stopped each and every one of the storm of bullets his fellows had released.

It was completely different from stopping shots from a peashooter. Even if he could move fast enough, the impact should have been enough to smash his hands and forearms.

However -- the combatman's upper body didn't even twitch and his arms were not pushed back. And when the gunmen finally realized what was going on and ceased their attack, "he" who confronted them also ceased moving and slowly opened both hands palm-downwards.

Countless lumps of lead that were no longer in the shape of bullets fell from his palms, and that impassive action gave rise to an indescribable feeling of pressure.

The boy was impressed by the dramatic scene, but in contrast, the crab kaijin and the remaining two combatmen all trembled in fear.

--Fear of a single, low-ranking combatman.


"Ah, um… S-so you came along?"

When the children stopped screaming, the first one to speak was the crab kaijin. His rough behavior from before had completely vanished, and he asked as if testing the waters, in a voice like a bully dragged up before their boss.

"I… I heard you weren't coming today… haha… haha…"

"Why are you laughing?"

The crab kaijin felt as if his whole body was drenched in sweat at that frigid reply. He didn't know how many sweat glands remained in his modified body, but at the very least, he knew he was mentally overwhelmed.

"No… well… I apologize."

"Don't apologize to your subordinates. It's unbecoming."

The red hero unconsciously swallowed, watching the back of the mysterious combatman as he spoke disinterestedly. He had thought the crab kaijin was the highest ranked here, but now he was speaking and acting deferentially.

No sooner did he notice the lower-ranked combatman crack his neck and sigh -- than he was already standing in front of Red.

"...!!"

A second too late, Red felt wind on his face.

"Who…"

...are you?

He wasn't able to finish his question. Red's body rose vertically, as if in the ejection seat of a fighter plane, and he was thrown out of the bus through the hole he himself had made.

In a flash, "he" had grabbed Red by the nape of the neck and easily tossed him upwards. That was all it was, but on the other hand, that toss sent the man flying away from the bus with all the force of a super ball thrown against the ground.

Some of the children looked out the windows, thinking that he would land on one of the vehicles following them, but there was no sign of the man wearing red falling. Only one child, who was sitting in the back seat and had been talking to the combatman, noticed.

A small red figure dropped down onto the iron bridge of the road that crossed over the freeway.


The inside of the bus was silent. After a while, "he" looked at his boss and coworkers and spoke.

"...So, you guys…"

"Urk."

"What made you think it was a good idea to open fire in such a small space?"

"Ah, w-well, er…"

All vigor had drained away from the three men he spoke to. They were obviously terrified of the subordinate/colleague who stood before them.

"What if you'd hit one of our precious hostages?"

"Ah… but, uh, our mission was to defeat the enemy…"

"...So then what if you'd hit me?"

"Eek…"

The crab kaijin was supposed to have transcended the limitations of humanity, but right now, he felt far, far more terror than anyone else inside the bus.

He was absolutely, positively terrified -- of this combatman, one of the very lowest in their organization, who on the outside looked just like any of the others.


Let's go back to about one month ago.

"Ehehehe… how do you feel?"

When he woke up, he was greeted with a sneer. In a haze, the man opened his eyes. He squinted unthinkingly in the bright light, but the nerves in his eyes soon adjusted and the precise details of his surroundings were sent to his brain.

The man was tied to a firm bed by leather belts, and the lights like flying saucers in the ceiling shone down brilliantly on his body.

His neck was restrained, but when he moved his gaze down, he saw more of the room. The man had been sleeping face-up, and around him he could see numerous human shapes, strange machines, and surgical tools.

His eyes and brain were functioning normally. He was probably completely sane.

But even so, the man was not at all surprised at his situation.

For him -- this was a scene he was completely used to.


"Ahahaha… now we'll begin the reconstructive surgeurargh."

The scientist's words were obstructed partway through.

The man who had been sleeping on the operating table had thrust half his fist into the scientist's mouth. He had torn through the restraints on his arms and legs like paper and had smashed about half the scientist's teeth with a single punch. That was all there was to it, but that action was enough for the atmosphere within the room to grow chilly and time to stop as the tables were turned.

"Uh…?"

The white-clad men who seemed to be assistants all gasped at the sudden development.

"E-Emergencyy ahhhhhh!"

One of the men tried to touch some sort of switch set in the wall, most likely to communicate with the outside, but his hand was pierced through by a pair of surgical scissors.

The man who had struck the scientist and just now thrown the scissors looked to be about twenty years old. He was of medium build and his body consisted entirely of lean muscle with no excess fat. And, without taking any interest in his surroundings, without any regret or hesitation, the ruffian spoke.

"Clothes."

The closest man quickly thrust the requested item at him.

"U-uh… here."

"You have combatman clothes that you were going to make me wear… I'm fine with those."

"Ye-Yes siiiiiir!"

That was the beginning of this organization's glory... and their frustration.


And now, one month later--


"...Oh, here is fine."

The bus had exited the Tokorozawa Interchange onto a general road and was currently stopped in the parking lot near a restaurant.

The bus door suddenly opened and a combatman emerged from inside, cracking his neck.

He dragged the crab kaijin and the other two combatmen behind him, who had been hit on the head and lost consciousness. Finally he turned and looked at the driver, teachers, and children and apologized in a slightly self-derisive voice.

"...Sorry for the mess."

"He" smiled masochistically beneath his mask.

Normally, those words would not have been sufficient. This incident might cause significant trauma for the children… was not what "he" thought.

Many of the children were looking at him through the windows, but only one of those children stood out from the others.

That boy alone looked at "him" without surprise or fear, glaring at "him" with eyes full of hatred.

"..."

However, "he" did not react in any particular way, leaving the bus as if nothing had happened.

"He" looked back just once, and on the other side of the backseat window, that energetic boy and the girl of unknown ethnicity were watching "him" and waving.

Smiling quietly underneath his mask, "he" waved lightly back to the boy and girl, for a moment seized by melancholy.

A crowd of curious onlookers had formed around the bus and many of them were staring at him -- but in the end, it did not bother "him" in the slightest.

Because they would forget everything.

They would forget every last thing.

There would be no trouble and the police would not come.

It was because he knew this that the combatman could not help but feel lonely as he waved at the two.


The combatman who had knocked out the kaijin with one punch and easily dealt with the hero wore a slightly lonely expression. But even that expression was hidden underneath his mask. It was hidden silently within him, where no one else would ever see.


The secret society Clock.

It was the kind of evil organization that usually appeared in the hero shows watched by children and tokusatsu fans. This particular organization took that shallow depiction and embodied it in reality.

Though Clock called itself a secret society, they openly flaunted their existence in grandiose ways. Furthermore, they loved causing flashy yet pointless incidents such as bus hijackings and school takeovers. They flaunted their monstrous bodies in front of civilians, and even the combatmen wore very unique masks.

In spite of that, they had never made the news.

The reason for that was simple. The people who saw them would forget all about them.

It was as if the time in which they spent embroiled in incidents was completely erased from existence.

"Clock, huh. Are they trying to control time? But really, it's clocks that are the ones controlled by time."

The organization's headquarters. The space underneath Tama Lake was furnished in a way reminiscent of a large university laboratory. As it was underground, naturally there were no windows, but overly bright fluorescent lamps shed light across the whole room.

Still wearing their masks, the combatmen who had completed their missions awaited their next orders in the break room.

"No… maybe it's more accurate to call us servants of time…"

"Yeah, seriously. Hyahahahaha."

The thin line of a person's shadow crept closer to the two combatmen, who were sitting in chairs in the break room, engaged in idle chatter.

"U-um…"

The person was dressed like a man, but the shape of their figure made it clear at a single glance that they were a woman. Sure enough, the voice that emerged from beneath the mask was female, but--

"? What's up? You trying to hit on us even if you don't know what we look like?"

The combatman with the brighter tone replied, but the combatwoman bowed slightly and spoke instead to the reticent combatman.

"N-no, er… um, you're #37564… right?"

#37564.

The moment the woman said that number, the combatman who had been speaking cheerfully suddenly felt himself go cold all over.

His joints creaking, the combatman turned his neck stiffly and focused on the comrade sitting next to him.

The reticent combatman who had just been having a friendly chat with him was silent for a moment -- and then quietly responded to the combatwoman.

"...Yeah."

At his response, the combatmen within the room who had been sneaking glances at him stiffened. Their heads were turned toward the man called #37564, but they did their best to avoid looking at his face.

All of them knew full well.

He was the strongest, most evil creature in the whole organization Clock.

They'd all heard.

There were rumors that he would break your arm the moment you met his eyes. And there was a legend that seemed to be true, that the executives and even the grand master couldn't keep him in line.

While the people around them held their breaths nervously -- the female combatman alone sighed hugely as if in relief.

"Oh, good! I don't know what I would've done if I had the wrong person…"

When they heard her voice, devoid of flattery or false laughter, the nearby combatmen turned to look at her in surprise and continued to watch as events unfolded.

The woman placed a hand on her chest in relief, then, bowing to the seated combatman, relayed orders to him in a clear voice.

"Combatman #37564. The grand master is calling for you. Please report to the command room immediately."

The grand master.

The air within the room grew even colder at those words, delivered without any intonation.

Naturally, as the most powerful man in the secret organization Clock, he was not someone whom the combatmen spoke of lightly. For him to personally summon an individual combatman could only be called an abnormal occurrence.

However, everyone present knew.

Combatman #37564.

His existence itself was abnormal. No matter what happened, it would not be considered strange. They must not question it. They must not pry too deeply.

That was the unspoken, unwritten rule concerning the man who had nearly killed the doctor before the reconstruction surgery could be performed -- the man who had single-handedly subdued all the power in the organization.


"I hate you."

A serene voice echoed through the spacious room.

"Boku" and "kisama." It was an extremely unbalanced word choice, but the smooth voice did not seem to find anything strange in what it was saying. [1]

The stairs continued far underground to the very lowest floor.. The wide space was decorated with a variety of supplies, as if to turn the whole room into a stage. Perhaps it would be appropriate to call it an event hall.

But right now the only two occupants of the room were the combatman standing in the center, who was being spoken to -- and the small figure standing confrontationally deeper within the room.

"Today… you just acted selfishly again."

The figure was clad in a pitch black cloak that dragged behind them, as if they were unaware of their own stature, and the upper half of their face was covered with a terrifying mask.

However, the lips that could be seen beneath the mask were pale and young, and the eyes that could be seen through the slits in the mask could only belong to a boy still growing up.

Remembering that those eyes had been glaring at him just a few hours ago, the combatman spoke curtly to his own employer. "...Selfishly? I guess it's true that I had no orders to protect your classmates from stray bullets and that oblivious idiot Red, Your Excellency."

When he heard those words, the grand master's mouth beneath the mask twisted slightly, and he spat out quietly as if to preserve his injured dignity, "Don't call them my classmates…!"

"Sorry. Your identity is a secret, Your Excellency. You are definitely not a boy in Tokorozawa Saien Private Elementary School, Grade 6 Class 1, by the name of Yuuki Tokihira. You're 'One Day Tyrant,' the governor of Tamayura and the second generation grand master of the secret society 'Clock.'"

Even as he called the boy "Your Excellency," he did not show a hint of deference. On the other hand, he did not exhibit any resentment either.

"...Stop with the sarcasm." The boy who whispered bitterly could only be the same elementary schooler who had glared at #37564 from the bus this afternoon.

All the same, it was just as the combatman said. He was also the highest authority of the secret society Clock.

The previous grand master was seriously injured in a sudden accident. Before he breathed his last, the old grand master, the boy's father, had ordered the organization's doctors to transplant all of his "knowledge" and "abilities" into his son. It was all to ensure a smooth transition to the new head of the organization.

...Under normal circumstances, passing on control of a secret society to one's son might not have been so easily accepted. But that much power… no, power for that purpose was passed on to the boy.

Brainwashing.

His power could be summarized with that single word.

Rather than something that could be explained scientifically, it was closer to a psychic power or supernatural ability. The power he had inherited as the grand master of Clock was one of "interference," to falsify memories, hypnotize, or fascinate nearby people… or even the whole city. He could manipulate people's minds to a certain extent without using his gaze or voice, possibly through waves emitted from somewhere within his body.

And so the boy brainwashed the people of his own organization, just as his father had before him.

He planted "loyalty" deep within their hearts, and they followed even ridiculous orders such as the bus hijacking without question.

In truth, thanks to that power, the many incidents that had occurred had been completely erased from people's memories, including today's bus hijacking.

And then, half a year after he had taken control of the secret society, both management of the organization as well as the ridiculous scheme to control time had been going smoothly.


Until one day -- a combatman appeared.


"It doesn't matter in the end, right? If someone finds you out, you just have to use your power to tamper with their memories. Problem solved."

"......"

The boy simply glared at his lowest-ranked follower for a while, then let out an unhappy sigh and murmured in a voice that completely concealed his irritation, "I don't want to hear you snarking right now."

His eyes were so mature they didn't seem to belong to an elementary-schooler, but his voice was full of the childishness appropriate for his age.

"Anyway… what excuse have you got for changing the route and interfering with the bus hijacking?"

"I won't make excuses. Punish me if you want."

Other combatmen would have quailed in fear at this development, but the man just smiled bitterly and shrugged. Though the boy was immensely irritated at his behavior, he did his best to control himself.

"No punishment I come up with will have any effect on you."

"......"

The boy smiled in a cynical, unchildlike way and glared at the "abnormality" standing before him.

"I've tried everything I could to keep you in line ever since you beat up the doctors. But… strength, swords, fire, acid, and poison have no effect. You didn't bat an eye at being locked in a room full of carbon monoxide, and worst of all, my power doesn't work on you for some reason!"

The boy's voice grew slightly more forceful at the end, as if he found the last bit particularly frustrating. But faced with such provocation, the man scratched his cheek beneath the mask with one finger and said in a sincerely awkward voice, "Uh… hey. You're embarrassing me."

"... That's enough. You're dismissed."

The young grand master decided yet again that engaging the man was a waste of effort. With an exaggerated flourish of his cape, he turned his back on the combatman.

"Oh… sorry, Your Excellency."

Sighing lightly, the combatman also turned his back on the boy.

However, he remembered something and looked back, calling to the boy in a calm voice.

"Oh right, I've been meaning to tell you… I think it's pretty weird to call yourself a tyrant."

"Get. Out."

His voice was full of unchildlike forcefulness. The combatman shrugged again and started walking.

But -- just when he reached the door, he heard the grand master speaking as if to himself.

"I won't ask why you have that kind of strength. But… if you're that strong, why settle for being a combatman? You could even overthrow me…"

It was an obvious question, and the combatman bowed his head for a while as if in thought--

"I know you hate me, Your Excellency…"

His response was evasive, as if he too were talking to himself.

"But I don't hate you, you know? At least you've given me food and a place to sleep."


"Why haven't I taken over the organization, huh…"

The combatman paused for a moment after leaving the room -- and this time, he really was speaking to himself.

"There's nothing for me."

He who had rebuffed the hero on the bus spoke in an unbelievably fragile, regretful voice.

"There's nothing I want to do…"


"So how was it?"

"Hmm? Nothing happened. I only showed him to His Excellency's room."

A number of combatwomen were gathered in an out-of-the-way hall, talking boisterously.

"I'm sorry. I was the one given the order… but you carried it out instead."

"No, it's fine. But I don't think it's really anything to be scared about? He's a bit antisocial, but other than that he's an ordinary person."

"No way! Haven't you heard the rumors about that guy!? He threatened the organization's executives, and night after night he chooses combatwomen from among us to make his own harem…"

"But isn't that just a rumor?" the woman pointed out gently, but the others around her began to deny it loudly.

"Don't be stupid! To begin with, it creeps me out that a guy with so many rumors about him can just put on a mask and blend in with us!"

"That's right! And he's so strong, there's got to be a reason he wears a combatman mask, right?""

"Right, right! Who knows what kind of horrible face he's got under that mask? Have you heard? He never takes his mask off outside his own room, so no one knows what he really looks like."

The women spoke their thoughts openly, and the combatwoman in the center tried to deny it.

"But… oh." She noticed a man behind the group.

"Yo."

A man who looked just like all the other combatmen was standing there.

"Thanks for before."

From those words alone, the other combatwomen realized who he was. Other than the woman who had guided him, they all stiffened and regarded the man's face as if they were looking a monster.

"U-um! T-t-t-t-that just now, uh, y-y-you've got it all wrong! That wasn't me, uh…"

One of the women who had just been spouting groundless rumors about him began to make excuses that weren't even proper sentences. But--

"Huh…? What're you talking about? I just wanted to thank her…"

He shrugged and spoke uncomprehendingly. For a moment the women seemed relieved, but then they departed unnaturally and hastily. Only a certain special combatman and the combatwoman who had showed him to the grand master's room were left behind.

The silence between them was broken when the woman suddenly bowed her head. "Uh, um. I'm sorry."

"Huh? For what?" The man feigned ignorance.

With a smile that could be sensed even from beneath her mask, the woman said brightly, "I said you're just a normal person, #37564, but… you're actually… a really good person!"

"Huh?"

"They were saying such horrible things about you, but you didn't get mad… you were just pretending you didn't hear, right?"

Did that really make him a good person? As he wondered about that, the man contradicted her. "Hey, hey… you should really think before speaking. ...Maybe I really didn't hear."

"If you weren't listening from the beginning, you wouldn't have figured out I was the one who helped you," the woman pointed out logically.

As if to dodge the topic, the combatman said, "...Well, putting that aside… maybe I let them go for now and I'll exact my terrible revenge on them later?"

"Hmm. But if you were going to do that, I think you would've done it all at once now. No one can tell you off no matter how unreasonable you are."

"You were just saying I'm a good person and then you go and tell me something like that…"

"Ah, s-sorry!"

The woman bowed her head, flustered, though that only served to make the man feel guilty and he sought to change the subject. "But… you could tell who I was, huh? I don't think my body and voice really stand out that much…"

It was a perfectly natural question, and the woman answered in a lively voice. "Um, those of us who serve as guards and secretaries for the grand master have functions in our masks that let us identify a combatman's number. It's like how there are letters that show up if you shine black light on them. We use a sense kind of like that to see the numbers written in a special paint on everyone's masks."

"Oh, huh…" #37564's expression said he had never heard this before.

The woman brought them back to the original topic. "But… what did you want to thank me for? All I did was show you to the room…"

"Ah… it's nothing."

Smiling wryly, the man said quietly, "It's… the first time someone's known who I was and still talked to me normally…"

Just a fragment of humanity showed beneath his unsociability, and unexpected words issued from under his mask.

"I was kinda happy. That's all."


Several weeks later, Tokyo Prefecture, on the shore of Tama Lake

'What a joke.'

There was no such thing as common sense.

He had no choice but to think that.

Seeing himself now, he had no choice but to think that.

'What part's not real? As far as the rest of the world is concerned, my existence itself is probably totally unreal.'

Right now he was standing on a ridiculously giant robot.

'If this isn't a joke, what is it?'

Standing atop the ragged remains of his opponents' huge weapon, he turned his gaze to the heroes twitching and moaning before him.

The group of five that had chosen to oppose Clock… they would normally be thought of as "heroes of justice."

It was the first time #37564 had met any of them except Red… but they'd defeated the kaijin in a flash. Just when they had been about to deal the finishing blow, a combatman had suddenly interfered and utterly annihilated them.

Even the giant robot that was their last hope.

"...Why are you guys weaker than me?"

There was no response to his sincere, strange question.

He tried looking away and giving them an opening, but there was no counterattack. Subdued by pain and humiliation, they only looked fearfully up at #37564. But none of them looked at his face. They were afraid. They were afraid of meeting the gaze beneath the mask.

Naturally, that frustrated the victorious combatman. He began to vent the emotions concealed deep in his heart to the heroes before him.

"I… I always admired guys like you. That's why I gave up being human, because I wanted to be like you! 'Cause I thought you were strong!"

He knew he was being unreasonable, but keeping silent wouldn't make him feel any better.

He wasn't strong.

He wasn't strong at all.

Because he felt that way -- he screamed.

"Give it back… give me back how much I admired you! You can't give up now. Believe and hope till the very end! Don't be scared, stand up and face me!"

His words didn't reach the ears of the frightened heroes. The combatman who was stronger than anyone and everyone could only continue to scream.

He was supposed to be stronger than anyone, and he was the only one who couldn't believe in his own strength.


However -- the fact remained that he had thoroughly defeated the heroes despite his frustration, and his circumstances changed greatly.


In the days following his actions, Clock's headquarters became a little more lively.

Countless groups of heroes who would appear suddenly and interfere in operations, who would come to take the lives of kaijin and combatmen, were captured by a single combatman.

Of course, there was only one combatman capable of doing such a thing. Everyone knew that.

A single man emerged victorious without a single scratch against opponents they themselves couldn't lay a finger on.

It was true that the number of frightened looks he received increased -- but on the other hand, they began to regard him with other emotions as well.

Faced with the straightforward providence that was his strength… many people began to look at him with admiration.


#37564 was tucked into a corner of the break room reading manga when a combatman appeared before him and spoke to him fearfully.

"U-um… you're #37564, right?"

"...Yeah."

He answered while wondering how this person knew who he was. The other combatman stood ramrod straight and said, "I-I'm #29182, who was deployed with you on a mission a few days ago! I wanted to show my gratitude for saving me when I was in a tight spot…"

"Nah, well, I was just pissed off at those heroes. It's not like I really meant to help…" he answered in a troubled voice.

But the other combatman wasn't listening. "When I saw you fighting… I really started to believe in this organization! But I did wonder why I was so loyal before now, when I didn't really have a good reason for it…"

That was because of the grand master's brainwashing. He knew that for a fact, but #37564 didn't say that.

"But! When I saw you, I decided I could gladly pledge loyalty to an organization you're in! I want to be like you someday, #37564!"

"Ah… no, I'm not really that great…"

As he smiled bitterly, combatman #29182 took the opportunity to praise and thank him again and then disappeared.

He watched the retreating back of the combatman, who seemed to be about same age as him or perhaps even younger, and then quietly resumed skimming the manga magazine.

And then a different voice called out from behind him.

"Wow, you sure are popular."

In response to her voice, he spoke to the combatwoman behind him without turning around.

"So you're the one who told him where I was," #37564 answered brusquely.

"Yup!" the female combatman said innocently.

She was the combatman who had guided him the other day under the grand master's orders. Ever since then, she'd spoken to him frequently, and they'd reached the point where #37564 could recognize her voice.

"Oh right, it doesn't sound urgent… but the grand master wants you."

The girl smiled as she told him of her mission. When he heard those words, he sighed as if to say "again?" and stood up.

He followed her and headed to the grand master's room on the lower floor -- but as it was the first time they had talked after he'd captured the heroes, she spoke up in a voice brimming with curiosity. "You really are amazing, #37564. I was surprised that they pulled out a giant robot, but then you totally beat it up! But… why are you so strong? Did you train in the mountains or something before coming here…?"

"I've... never put in any effort like that," he murmured just a bit sourly, as if somehow dissatisfied. "None of my strength is because of anything I've done."

"...? What do you mean?"

She spoke with a hint of reservation. Perhaps she felt it wasn't something she should be asking about.

For a moment, #37564 hesitated to talk about his past -- but then he remembered he had no reason to hide it. But he also thought it wasn't something he could easily say, and he wasn't sure what to do. He began to murmur as if it to himself so as to first sort out his thoughts.

And as he did so, he recalled the secret of his own strength.

"My last memory as a human -- is of pain."

"Huh?"

"There... was only pain. Now that I think about it, maybe I went crazy back then… and I have been ever since… even now."


The pain soon brought with it a feeling of loss.


The bright white ceiling was decorated only with splashes of red.

'I wonder whose blood that is? At least it's not mine, I thi- ow ow ow ow ow ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh'

He tried to think of other things to distract himself from the pain, but his attempt failed in the end.

The man was still young enough to be called a boy. As he felt the blood pouring from his side, he battled with the intense pain.

How had this happened?

He'd been living a normal life, but then he'd gotten mixed up in some delinquents' dispute and then brought to their office. But then other disputes broke out all around that office, and a sharp-eyed man wielding a nagadosu showed up and cut down the strongest people there one after another.

But the boy hadn't been attacked by that man. One of the bullets fired by the panicked delinquents had gone astray and buried itself in his side.

The man with the nagadosu had chased after the man who appeared to be the delinquents' boss, leaving the office enveloped in silence. The boy's heartbeat grew weaker as he continued to lose blood. In exchange, a high-pitched sound began to reverberate in his ears, but it was probably just a hallucination.

'What did I do to deserve this? What did I do? No no no I don't want to die if I was strong if I was stronger I could've just hit those delinquents and run instead of getting involved and I could've run when that scary man showed up and I could've dodged that bullet or I could've just caught it between my fingers! Like that! Just like that! Like… like… ahhhhhhh ow, ow, ow, owwwwwwww, ahhhh if I was strong I was strong I could just shrug away this pain, I could stand it, I could just heal myself right now!'

Then the boy remembered the heroes he had idolized as a child.

He remembered the heroes who didn't give up no matter what trials or adversity they faced and overcame everything through their own strength. He wanted to be like that. Even though he'd reached the age where he'd left behind those dreams -- now, faced with his approaching death, he wished so, so, so, so strongly, more than he ever had as a child. More than anyone and everyone--

'I… want to be strong.'


"Amazing. How many minutes did it take him to do this?"

"Not minutes, seconds. ...Though what else could you expect from a guy called the Apparition? Ginjima, huh… if we had someone like that…"

As the boy continued to endure the pain, he heard the voices of men muttering above him.

Wondering who they were, he tried to look at them, but he realized his eyes had already lost the ability to focus.

"I think we should just grab someone from the army if we want someone used to fighting."

"You don't know what a commotion it'll cause if a soldier goes missing. We're not strong enough yet to make the army our enemy. That's why we're scouting in a place like this."

'Who are they? Ow ow ow ow ow it doesn't matter who they are if they'll get rid of this pain if they'll help me anyone anyone ow… ow… ow...ww…'

There was no more use trying. The pain was overruling his thoughts. As he faded away, his world was colored not by a sense of peace, but with nothing but pain.

"Who's this? He doesn't look like yakuza."

"Hmm…"

In his last moments, the boy heard a voice.

"Do you want to be strong, boy?"

In response to the voice, he summoned up all his remaining strength and nodded. At least, that was what he meant to do, but in the end he didn't know whether or not his head actually moved.

But -- it seemed the voice in front of him understood his intention.

"Then… we'll make you strong."


And then--

When he awoke, he was no longer human.

At the same time, he had obtained the strength he had so desperately wished for.

But it wasn't the tremendous strength of a hero, or even the terrible strength of a kaijin who opposed them…

It was only the strength of a small-time combatman.


The next day, the organization that had modified him was destroyed by a hero of justice.

Absolutely, with no traces remaining.

Before he even had the chance to determine if the power he had obtained was great or small--


"...Huh?

The combatwoman who had been listening to him talk to himself turned around and gave #37564 a puzzled look.

In response to her confusion, he paused his monologue for now and looked at her.

"It's not just Clock. There've been... lots and lots of secret societies that modify humans and stuff like that."

And then, as if to explain what he meant by "lots," he resumed his monologue.

"I didn't really get it, but I was set free after I got stronger. But pretty soon after that I started to think maybe it was my fate."

Whether he thought fondly or bitterly about the past, his voice as it emerged from beneath the mask was quiet and serious.

"I was enjoying my freedom and wanted to test my own power after I'd been modified… so I went to a sports gym in the city. I didn't even put in much effort, but what I could do was amazing… A pretty instructor said she wanted to talk to me in the office, so I followed her happily and had some tea… and I woke up on an operating table."


And then -- he was modified again, before he even received an explanation. They strengthened his body using some sort of magical technique, completely unlike the previous organization.

Perhaps there was some kind of strange reaction with his previous modification. A strong pain began to run through his body constantly.


But before he could mention the abnormality, the organization was destroyed by a different group of heroes than before.

He had resigned himself to die within the organization's collapsing base -- but another organization took advantage of the destruction to claim the previous organization's resources, and he was picked up as a sample of a modified human--


But that organization met the same fate.

And the organization after that--


"Four times. I've been modified four times in total."

"......"

As he spoke of his past, which was much closer to being fate than a series of coincidences, #37564 let out a long, heavy sigh.

"I've been modified in lots of different ways. I've had this weird half-transparent thing enter my mouth and possess me and I've had my brain tampered with. ...The pain in my body disappeared with the third modification… The fourth group noticed I was pretty strong and wanted to see what it would take for me to die, so they did everything they could think of to me. ...Before I knew it, my body turned out like this."

In the end, she didn't know what exactly had been done to him. But when the combatwoman imagined the hell he had experienced, her body trembled violently.

"The fourth organization broke down from the inside. Seems like they were squabbling over me. If… a hero had appeared, the organization probably would've come together. Times like that are the only times heroes won't show up."

When he said the word "hero," his voice was even heavier than when he talked about being modified.

"...The heroes who destroyed my old organizations killed without mercy. I was terrified and couldn't do anything. The combatmen were beaten to death mercilessly even as they begged for their lives. The smell of blood was everywhere. I thought there was no way anyone could've lived through that."

"B-But didn't you manage to survive?"

"I… didn't fight. Not with the heroes. ...I was scared. When I saw how strong they were… I got scared of dying and hid. Because I hadn't been brainwashed or anything yet…"

As time passed, he became tormented by feelings of guilt and gradually began to consider dying.

"So I... searched out the heroes who'd destroyed the organizations and challenged them. ...I thought I'd get killed, but I figured that was fine if it would make me feel less guilty… well, I really worried about it a lot before I was ready to go that far."

The combatwoman had been listening to his story in silence. He finally gave her a lonely smile beneath his mask and began to speak of the results of his quest for revenge.

"Do you get it? How I felt when I challenged those heroes I'd looked up to, ready to die, and then knocked them flat with just one punch…"

He'd said something disturbing. That occurred to him, but at the same time, he no longer really cared.

But the combatwoman didn't avert her gaze, and when they reached the grand master's room, she whispered just one thing.

"But… this time you did save us. Our organization… from those heroes of justice."

At those words, delivered in such a kind tone, #37564 was finally rendered speechless.


"...Have you heard of Hikarijima?"

When he entered the room, the young grand master was silent for a while, until he finally murmured in a completely baffled voice.

"Yeah, well. All the people on the island disappeared a few months ago, right?"

As usual, he spoke without showing any deference, but right now the grand master didn't seem to care.

"Well… I was looking into the guys that you caught, and it seems like they're from Hikarijima. Getting rid of all the inhabitants of an island… I really admire that incident."

The young grand master had his back to the combatman and his expression couldn't be seen.

A modern-day spiriting away… the disappearance of the entire population of Hikarijima.

Hikarijima was an island in the Pacific Ocean. Its two thousand inhabitants had suddenly vanished, and to this day the truth behind the incident was still unknown. It was an extremely unusual case, so much so that the uncanniness of it all sent chills up even #37564's spine.

"...Admire?"

”They created such a big disturbance and left a mystery for the world, throwing everyone into complete confusion… That's what we should be doing too."

The combatman could sense the seriousness in his voice and gave advice to his own boss in a scoffing tone.

"Hey now. Do you really have to do something so over-the-top evil just to show off? I've been wondering for a while, Your Excellency. What are you trying to do with untargeted acts of terrorism like bus hijackings and putting poison in dams? Isn't that just like the villains in anime or tokusatsu shows?"

The grand master's reply was very simple.

”That's right. I… want to be like them."

"...Huh?" the combatman responded, dumbfounded.

Behaving in a way he never had before, the grand master began to explain his thinking. "I don't need the real world. ...I can't live as part of society in the real world."

"Your Excellency, what are you talking about…?"

"Do you think... I asked for this kind of power?"

Then the grand master turned around to face the combatman. The boy's fluttering cape, his sharply glittering eyes in the depths of his mask, looked more villainous than they ever had before.

"I was dragged in by my father's ego and had someone else's knowledge and power forced on me. Along with the fate of this stupid organization… along with the fates of all the soldiers here!"

His voice held nothing of his usual demeanor as the grand master. They were simply the honest words of a twelve-year-old boy.

And yet, as he listened, the combatman felt the boy's power in a way he never had before.

That was the power of a strong will.

And a horribly twisted malice.

"I… want to be a villain."

But his voice was pure, and the mouth just visible beneath his mask was even smiling innocently.

"There are countless people who kill each other, not really understanding the meaning of good and evil. I want to be pure evil in this worthless world."

"...Why?"

149.PNG


The combatman could guess the boy's answer. The same thoughts had occurred to him before. They still did… even now.

The combatman's fists clenched lightly, and the boy answered him, his gaze clear and a happy smile on his face.

"If pure evil exists in this world, then someday… a hero will appear."

"..."

"Because that hero will come to kill me. He'll erase me from this worthless world. That's definitely my duty. It's the job my father entrusted me with. To call forth a hero… someone who is true justice… Yeah, I'm a lamb. I'm the sacrificial lamb. Me… and the people in this organization… and everyone in the world living normal lives!"

It was a foolish, laughable, childish delusion. But his eyes in the depths of his mask were glassy like a doll's and completely mad, and the combatman did not dare answer.

Then the grand master paused and put on an ecstatic, bewitching smile, completely different from his previous childlike expression.

"I thought it was about time for them to show up. I thought the heroes of justice had appeared who would destroy me and my organization. I acted despicably, when really my heart was jumping for joy…! But… the all-important heroes were completely wiped out by a lowly combatman… you've got to be kidding me."

While his smile was like that of a mad clown, his eyes held just a trace of sadness.

”If… you had any conviction to go with being strong, I wouldn't have minded if you destroyed me. I wouldn't have minded if you'd killed me. Or if you'd had any ambition of your own, I might've seriously changed my goal to world domination!"

The boy's smile suddenly disappeared. This time his expression was colored with deep sorrow and anger.

"You don't have any ideas or beliefs or conviction of your own, but you're strong. You're way too strong!"

But his anger was soon overwritten by grief. Real tears streamed down his disheveled face, and the boy walked up to the combatman, gripping the other's nape with his small body.

"...Even though you've just lived on 'somehow,' you're too strong."

As he watched the boy's demeanor flip like a switch, #37564 thought back on the boy's circumstances. He'd been a normal elementary schooler -- until a huge amount of knowledge, an inhuman ability, and most importantly, the organization Clock had been thrust upon him. That may have been more than enough to drive him over the edge. To begin with, he didn't know how much of a burden the boy's ability put on his brain.

"You'd probably live even if you got hit by a nuclear weapon! You might even live if you got thrown into the sun, you know!?"

The combatman was silent and continued to listen as the boy slowly began to return to his usual behavior as the grand master.

However, whether that was because he'd regained his composure or if it was a new facet of his madness… a mere combatman could not possibly tell.

"But then why won't you kill me? I'm betraying everyone in this organization. I'm killing myself and taking them with me! How many people have been killed by those heroes!? It's my fault! They joined my organization and got killed by heroes! That's why I'll die! And more of them will die -- no, I'll kill them! So… so hurry up! Hurry up and stop me, defeat me… hurry up and kill me!"

His yell was full of mixed malice and terror, as well as the sadness and anger from letting his subordinates, his comrades in the organization, be killed by heroes.

"Kill me… you just have to become a hero or take my place as the evil grand master! ...But then why? Why won't you do anything!?"

'Maybe he feels cornered because his comrades were killed by heroes.'

The heroes had appeared so suddenly. They had only put on a pointless pretense of evil, and yet heroes had appeared before them and dealt out death.

Perhaps the boy had chosen to completely immerse himself in evil so he could come to terms with the sudden death of his comrades. He'd destroyed a part of himself in order to keep going.

#37564 suspected as much, but he had no way of making sure, so he kept his mouth shut.

"We've got a crest."

Instead… he waited until the boy stopped yelling and began to speak quietly.

"On the wall of this room and the combatmen's uniforms… that's a crest, right?"

"...Huh?"

Without thinking, the grand master made a childish noise in response. The combatman turned his eyes toward the design on the inner wall of the room, the organization's logo which used a clock as the motif.

"...It's pretty cool."

"..."

The boy didn't understand the point his much stronger subordinate was trying to make. He dried his tears with the sleeve of his cloak as he waited for the combatman's next words.

"I swore loyalty to this organization 'cause I liked this design. I mean it."

"What a terrible lie…"

"I'm not lying. ...Your Excellency. This is how I am. I decide what I'll do based on something that simple."

The boy was silent. In a reversal of their earlier positions, the combatman turned away and shrugged, trying to hide his embarrassment.

"I'm the opposite of you, Your Excellency. I don't care about the world… no, I can't even think about it… I get scared just wondering if I have that right."

That was how he truly felt.

At the same time, it was a confession of his own weakness.

For this man, who couldn't sense his own power, that was how the strong anxiety he felt about himself had manifested in his way of life.

"So… all you have to do is show me the way. Well, I'll have to refuse if you ask for a double suicide or something… but until a real hero shows up who'll defeat me, I'll beat all those fake heroes to a pulp. Okay?"

The combatman spoke gently to the boy in the tone of an older brother persuading a younger brother.

For a moment, the grand master gazed blankly at the combatman -- until at last he shook his head calmly and began to speak. "...I can't trust anyone who hides their expression."

"I'm wearing a mask. You're asking too much."

After that smooth exchange, both of them looked away -- and laughed, quietly and voicelessly.

They laughed at their own weakness.


As if growing tired of the silence, the combatman spoke up as he remembered something.

"Oh right, Your Excellency. This crest's really stylish… who designed it?"

For some reason, the grand master looked slightly embarrassed as he answered the casual question. "Oh, well… it was someone from the outside… a man named Hariyama-san."

"Huh."

The combatman was more than a little surprised to hear that an outsider had interacted with their organization. And then the reason for the grand master's embarrassment was made clear with his next words.

"He's... the father of someone I know… my classmate. Maybe he thought it was for a TV show or something. We asked him to make a symbol for an evil organization and he didn't even bat an eyelash, just worked hard on it…"


Now that they had come to something of an understanding, #37564 made to leave the room. But a question from the grand master arose from behind him.

"Hey… it sounds like lately you've been getting along well with #13871."

"#13871?"

"The woman who brought you here."

"Oh… well, we don't not get along."

He nodded in understanding, realizing this was the first time he'd heard her combatman number.

"I see… that's fine. There'll be no need to worry if you're there…"

"?"

At the time, he didn't understand what the grand master was talking about -- but he would soon come to know the meaning of those words.

It was only three hours later that she came to tell him she had been promoted to kaijin.


"But still… I didn't expect such a sleek design."

#37864 gave his impression in a low, keen voice. His gaze was on the former combatwoman, whose appearance had done a complete 180° from yesterday.

Her outer appearance was smart and elegant, resembling a white lily, and it beautifully showed off the particular curves of a woman's body.

The top half of her face was shaped so that it resembled that of a bug, but the design looked pretty rather than being grotesque. Her nose and mouth had been left in the shape of a human's, exposing part of a lovely face which he had not seen while she wore a combatman mask.

Of course, the top part of her face acted as a helmet. Supple black hair extended from the back, and something about her hidden eyes was strangely captivating.

She had undergone the remodeling operation to become a kaijin with the form of an orchid mantis -- and then she had been assigned the position of commanding officer of the volunteer special force.

Incidentally, following the concept of kaijin that could turn into humans, the alterations to her outer appearance were toned down drastically in comparison to that of the crab kaijin.

As he looked at the beautiful kaijin colored in shades of light pink and milky white reminiscent of cherry blossom petals, the lower-ranked combatman began to mutter.

"I can only see from the nose down, but… you're… pretty beautiful, huh?"

When #37564 delivered a rare compliment, the woman -- the kaijin with the strange codename of Silk Sickle -- gave an innocent smile with a hint of childishness that was at odds with her entrancing figure.

"Ahaha, thank you very much."

"You're a kaijin so you outrank me, you know? You don't have to be so polite."

"Then I'll speak casually if you speak to me politely."

It was a natural proposition, but #37564 didn't answer and instead changed the subject.

"But… why a praying mantis? I heard you were the one who asked for it."

"Umm. Orchid mantises are both pretty and strong. I've admired them since I was a child."

"Huh. Well, I do think they're pretty… but not many people like mantises."

The combatman made a casual sound of acknowledgement, and the kaijin woman proceeded to say something strange.

"And I saw one in town earlier! There was a mantis about the size of a puppy walking with a girl and talking to her!"

"Huh?"

"It must've been a mantis fairy! So I thought maybe this was fate…"

'She really is weird.'

"Let's just leave your overactive imagination at that."

He spoke as if scolding her, but he felt no disgust for Silk, the female kaijin before him. It was because she was so strange that she didn't avoid people like himself.

#37564 still thought of himself as a disgrace to their organization.

However, that perception would soon be revised.


The first orders given to Silk were to invade the headquarters of the (self-styled) destruction brigade Genocider and capture the supporters and engineers working in collaboration with them.

It seemed they had managed to get some kind of information out of the five people they had taken prisoner, so for the first time, they would be the ones staging an attack on the enemy.

It would be a dangerous mission, so other than Silk, the commander of the special forces, the combatmen in the unit were all volunteers.

And within a few hours, rumors began to circulate throughout Clock that #37564 had of course been the first to volunteer.

'Geez… we've got no idea what we'll run into at their hideout.'

If Silk went alone, she would be in great danger if there happened to be any enemies as strong or stronger than those heroes

'I see. So this is what His Excellency was talking about yesterday.'

The grand master had predicted that #37564 would go with her if it was a volunteer force. In that case, he had judged the combatman to be more powerful than any kaijin he could send.

'I really don't want him to overestimate me.'

He didn't believe in his own strength, and the trust others placed in him was nothing more than a burden to him.

But he wanted to protect her of his own will. He could just ignore other people's trust. That was what he thought, but--


Several hundred combatmen gathered at the recruitment for the volunteer force. The mission would take place within the city, so the number of combatmen would be limited to only sixteen.

#37564 intended to follow in secret even if he wasn't chosen. He walked leisurely up to Silk and quietly commended the new commander's charisma. "This is amazing. You're really popular."

The male members had probably gathered because of the popularity of one of the few female kaijin. He thought it was either that or that the prospect of their first offensive operation had caused excitement within the organization.

However--

"Huh? What're you talking about? All these people are here for you, you know!"

"Wha?"

When he heard those strange words, at first he thought they were some kind of joke. But upon being told as much, the dense man finally noticed the numerous stares aimed in his direction.

"That's him… right?" "Yeah, he's talking to Lady Silk as an equal. It's gotta be him." "One of the grand master's secretaries told me earlier. That's definitely #37564."

Their words reached his ears one after another. As usual, their voices were colored half with fear… but the other half was tinged with some sort of expectation.

"They want to see you. All of them. They want to see your 'power.'"

'It's not a joke.'

More than anything else, he couldn't handle other people's expectations.

Was he really that strong?

Would he be able to live up to their expectations?

Weren't they thinking too much of him?

What if he gave it his all and they still weren't happy?

And… what if he lost to the enemy?

Maybe he would suddenly get a stomachache. Maybe his power would suddenly disappear. Or maybe a black hole would suddenly appear over the Earth and only he would get sucked in, or maybe the universe would suddenly be buried in chestnut manjuu… No… or maybe a hero stronger than him would appear this time?

The greater the expectations on him, the more the uncertainty he normally suppressed reared its ugly head. He should have been looking forward to this, but suddenly his feelings had completely changed to anxiety.

The weakness of the "strongest man" had shown its face.

'It's not a joke. They're totally serious.'

"H-Huh? Are you getting nervous?" Silk asked with a puzzled expression.

He gave a slight, silent nod, and Silk smiled brightly and tried to encourage her subordinate. "It's okay. Just imagine them as pumpkins…"

"Impossible," he answered instantly.

As dejection began to take over his mind, some distance away, surrounded by envious gazes, the fifteen combatmen selected cried out with heartfelt joy.


But they did not yet realize.

The fate that awaited them.

That they would soon catch a glimpse of Hell.

No one, not #37564, not Silk, predicted the sight they would encounter.


"Is this really it?" #37564 asked doubtfully inside the empty building.

It was a structure on the outskirts of Tokorozawa that was the very definition of a research lab. Silk had cut soundlessly through the lock using the sickle on her arm and they had entered by force -- but there was absolutely no sign of anyone inside, and they couldn't even get a grasp on the living and work situation here.

"Um… this should be the place, but…" As she answered, Silk tilted her head uncertainly..

Did they feel threatened because their comrades were taken captive and leave their hideout in a hurry?

'Well, seems like no enemies will show up.'

It seemed he'd managed to avoid having to go into combat while burdened with too many expectations. For now, #37564 felt like a weight had been lifted off his chest.

"Maybe they gave us a fake location… Sorry, please contact headquarters," Silk ordered the combatman in charge of communications.

"Hey now, why're you saying sorry when giving orders to your subordinates…"

#37564 had relaxed, but the moment he tried to rebuke his boss--

The fear-filled voice of the combatman carrying the radio rang sharply through the quiet building.


"...I can't get ahold of headquarters!"


Thump.

The moment he heard his companion's words, he also heard the sound of his own heartbeat.

He had a bad feeling.

He had a bad feeling.

The memories of his past were being dredged up.

His instincts were that of a creature that had grown so strong it no longer needed to fear its own death, and yet they sensed danger.

They sensed danger to someone other than himself.

The smell of the past once again filled his nostrils.

It was the smell he had once feared more than anything.

What the man who was furthest from death felt--

Was death itself.


Clock headquarters

Hell awaited them there.

They'd felt uneasy when they were unable to contact headquarters, and so Silk and the sixteen combatmen had returned partway through their mission.

What they saw was--

A rusty iron smell permeated the air, and a red color was scattered haphazardly across their field of view.

The walls and ceilings had crumbled, and they could see limbs poking out here and there from beneath the rubble.

Annihilation.

That one word was enough to describe the situation.

While they had been at the enemy's hideout, their own hideout had been completely annihilated.

"What… happened?"

Some of the members of the volunteer force huddled together with shocked expressions. Others started moving aside the rubble in search of survivors. And Silk started running into the depths of the hideout to see if the grand master was safe.

#37564 was in the first group.

The scenes from his past when his previous organizations had been destroyed had come to life once again.

His past self, trembling violently as he did his best to avoid being found, had returned once again.

'It's happened again.

'I… couldn't do anything again.'

As he stood there dumbfounded, trying to comprehend the situation, a weak voice reached his ears.

"Ah… #37564… are you #37564…?"

When he turned toward the voice, he saw a combatman standing there, part of his mask covered in blood. He seemed to be much weakened and approached on unsteady legs.

"I don't care if I'm wrong… I'm #29182."

That number was familiar. It was the young combatman who had thanked him yesterday.

"Are you okay? ...Yeah, it's me. What happened?"

As he tried desperately to suppress his own urge to cry, #37564 supported #29182, who was on the verge of collapsing, and asked for the reason behind this disaster.

"Somehow… uh… someone probably… freed those five prisoners… it was a mess… all the executives except the grand master ran right away… We didn't even stand a chance against them… I'm sorry! We weren't strong enough…!"

'Why are you apologizing?'

He was the one who should be apologizing. Even if the prisoners had been locked up, they had still been dangerous, and it had been his mistake to go with Silk regardless.

As #37564 was thinking, #29182 lost consciousness. #37564 entrusted his medical treatment to the members of the volunteer force still present and started running straight for the command room, chasing after Silk.


'Someone let them out? ...Were we betrayed?'

A traitor.

When that word appeared in his mind, he remembered the face of the grand master. Soon after, the words "I'm taking everyone with me…" were dredged up from his memories.

But he quickly dismissed that possibility. Even though the grand master was emotionally unstable… he would not easily betray the way he had smiled back then.

#37564 was bad at handling people's trust in him -- but he was even worse at doubting people who had earned his trust.

'Then who was it?'

But he didn't have time to think about that right now.

If the grand master wasn't responsible… then that boy was the one in the most danger.


Behind the door was -- Silk, who had collapsed to her knees, and further inside, a small figure lying stretched out.

"Your Excellency…!"

The combatman ran over in a panic. In response, the eyes beneath the mask slowly shifted their gaze. #37564 breathed a great sigh of relief upon finding that he was still conscious.

But they didn't know how badly he was injured. He ground his teeth at his lack of medical knowledge, but Silk seemed to understand how he felt and explained the grand master's condition. "It's okay… his life isn't in danger… but we should bring him to a doctor…"

"Heh… you're late… #37564…"

The one who interrupted her was none other than the grand master himself. When he saw the face of the subordinate he was supposed to hate, the boy began to speak in a relieved voice. "Brainwashing didn't really work on those guys… but in the end, I managed to trick them with an illusion that I was dead… if I hadn't… they really would've finished me…"

"It's fine, don't talk. It's bad for your wounds."

"It… doesn't hurt. Because I messed with my own mind… I don't feel any pain…"

For the briefest instant, he wore a masochistic smile. Then perhaps he relaxed after seeing his comrades unharmed, for large tears began to fall from the boy's eyes.

"When they started attacking… I put fear into the whole organization's hearts to make them run... but not all of them got away… so many of them were killed by those guys… those guys… even shot combatmen in the back as they ran away…!"

"..."

When he heard the grand master's pained words, unspeakable rage rose up within #37564.

Half of it was directed at those heroes…

And the other half was directed at his own weakness.

He… he had the power to do something about those guys… but he hadn't been able to do anything.

He hadn't been there. That was the only reason. He was strong, but he hadn't been able to save anyone!

'Ahh, my weakness is showing.

'It's my own weakness.'

His knees began to tremble, and an irresistible urge to throw up arose from the depths of his stomach.

It was his fault.

People had died because of him. His comrades had died.

Under normal circumstances, the deaths of combatmen weren't any of his business. But this time was different.

In #37564's mind, he recalled the faces of combatmen who had gathered this morning because they looked up to him. They all wore the same mask, but those multitudes of the same face stuck in his head and wouldn't leave.

'It… it was my fault?'

He was filled with nausea.

He was filled with weakness.

Within him rose the urge to destroy everything around him to vent his nausea and his weakness, but at that moment--

"Kill… me."

The voice formed an unusually somber melody that rang within the heads of the combatman and female kaijin.

"What?"

"What are you saying!?"

They simultaneously raised their voices in protest, but the boy did not stop speaking. It was not an order from the grand master… simply a plea from a young boy.

"Please… I can't… watch this anymore… I don't… want to see anything else destroyed… because of me… but… it's too late to go back…"

It may have been the first time the boy asked something of anyone else as just a human.

But #37564 furiously brushed his request aside.

"Kill you? Kill you, Your Excellency!? What the hell are you saying, you brat? There's some things you don't say even if you are the grand master!"

He directed his own anger at himself toward the grand master.

"...I'm scared."

Following the anger, sadness appeared on his face. His emotions flipped like a switch. Self-consciously he realized that he and the grand master really were alike.

"I'm scared of killing people! I'm a coward who can't even kill his enemies… and you're telling me to kill a kid like you? I can't, Your Excellency!"

The boy only smiled masochistically again at his subordinate's frantic scream. When he saw that expression, a chill ran down the combatman's spine.

If he didn't kill the grand master, the grand master would just brainwash Silk and have her kill him. ...Because he didn't have the courage to kill himself. The combatman understood because he was the same way.

The combatman searched for what to say to the grand master. He didn't have a goal in mind; he simply began to speak.

"We're the only ones still unhurt, Your Excellency. Only an orchid mantis kaijin and sixteen combatmen who were out on orders to attack the enemy."

Maybe there were other combatmen who hadn't fled and had escaped injury, but right now, they couldn't count them among their numbers.

"But… they're the elite who've survived this long. And there were people who fought and died even after you undid the brainwashing, right!? Everyone… is strong. Everyone in this organization."

He realized that a masochistic smile had appeared on his own face at some point… Thinking that was pretty unsightly of him, he once again put on a sad expression.

"So please, Your Excellency."

Up until now, #37564 had never treated the grand master with deference -- but Silk, who was watching from the sidelines, realized that the combatman had a much stronger sense of loyalty than she did.

"Don't order us to kill you. Don't make me any weaker than I am already. Don't… don't make me the only weakling."

Or perhaps they loathed each other because they were so alike.

"Order me! Order me to protect this organization, and you, and Silk, and everyone! Give me a reason to live! ...Aren't you the grand master of an evil secret society!?"

Those who harbored complexes concerning their weakness could see their own weakness in each other.

"So… I don't care what it takes, but… make me… make me strong…!"


Perhaps the grand master came to that same realization as he listened to the combatman's words. The boy smiled slowly and opened his eyes, looking at the combatman's face again -- and then he looked at Silk and murmured, "Hey… what… what do you think of that symbol?"

"...Huh?"

Silk was suddenly drawn into the conversation, and she followed the boy's gaze. There was nothing there but the wall of the room -- but from the word "symbol," he was probably talking about the organization's crest emblazoned on the wall.

"It's cool, right…"

"Y-Yes!"

She didn't really understand, but Silk nodded emphatically all the same.

Then the boy faced the combatman, who had stopped yelling, and said, "You know."

"......"

As the "strongest weakling" gazed at him silently, determination once again returned to the boy's expression and he spoke.

"I'm just like you… maybe I don't really care about the organization. But… but I…!" [2]

He gathered his strength and sat up -- and told the man and woman before him of his will as the grand master.


"I don't want to erase that symbol yet…!"


Several days later, Saitama Prefecture, Tokorozawa, a certain place

"Whoa, cool! Look, Dad, there's a lot of trucks stopped by that apartment over there!"

"Oh, right, they were saying about twenty people would be moving into that building today."

The man muttered in a relaxed voice in response to his son as he gazed at the apartments next to his home.

The glasses-wearing man had the kind of face that no one would hate or even resent. When it got down to it, it was an "endearing face," with features that contained not a hint of disagreeableness.

The father and son, who had been building a bookshelf, spent a while looking at the fleet of trucks that had stopped next to their house, but--

"Huh?"

Eventually the son let out a surprised noise. He left the garden and started running toward the apartments where the trucks were stopped.

"Ah, wait, Shinya! Don't get the way while they're moving!"

Ignoring his father's warning, the boy with the inquisitive soul yelled loudly to one of the people entering the apartments.

"Tokihira-kun! That's you, right, Tokihira-kun?"

"Oh…"

The boy he called out to looked surprised and waved timidly at the classmate running toward him.

"I was worried 'cause they said you'd be out of school for a while… but okay, it was just because you're moving!"

"Ah, um, umm. Yeah. R-Right… so your house… is really close by, Shinya."

His behavior was obviously stilted, but Shinya didn't seem to mind at all.

"I see…  oh right, Nacchan is coming over to my house today. You should come too, Tokihira-kun!"

"Oh… G-Ginjima's coming? Um… oh, right. I have to help with the moving."

Yuuki Tokihira looked at the man and woman carrying their luggage as if hoping they'd agree -- but the man smiled refreshingly and gave him a thumb's up.

"Oh, Your -- uh, Yuuki, we'll take care of setting up your room. Go play with your friends."

Yuuki's expression contorted to one of betrayal. "I'll remember this, #37564..." he vowed darkly as he was dragged away by his friend(?).

"...He should spend some time getting to know his classmates until he gets back on his feet."

"I think so too."

As he spoke with the nearby woman, the other men carried their luggage into the building.


One week had passed since their hideout had been annihilated.

In the end, they hadn't been able to determine who had betrayed them. To tell the truth, now that the majority of combatmen had been released from the brainwashing and turned loose, it was nearly impossible to prove anything to begin with.

'Why did the traitor… betray our organization?'

#37564 had thought it over quietly as they'd vacated their destroyed hideout.

'What would they get out of destroying the organization like that? What if there was something they couldn't do unless it was destroyed right then?'

After thinking it over for a while -- one possibility occurred to him. He ended up realizing it.

'Was it… me?'

What had the traitor managed to do back then because the organization was destroyed? That was to hurt #37564. He was supposed to be near-invincible -- but they had inflicted upon his heart a despair from which he could not recover.

When he realized that, he also recalled the faces of the numerous executives he had half-killed on his first day.

'In that case, it… really was my fault?'

The hideout was not the only thing that had been destroyed that day. So was the very organization "Clock" and the lives of its countless members. And -- the boy's heart and past.

But… "he" was still uninjured.

The things he should have held on tightly to and those people he thought he would come to cherish had crumbled right in front of him. As he listened to their silent screams, he once again fell into despair -- he could think only of destroying the whole world.

But he didn't do it. Even though he knew it would be a simple matter to make that nightmare come true with his power.

Nowadays, the grand master acted like a boy his age. So many of his subordinates had died, and yet at first glance, the burden he bore was not obvious.

But #37564's overly sensitive hearing picked up on something every night.

Once their leader was left alone, he would always hear the sound of stifled sobs coming from that room.

And because he knew that voice -- because he knew the grand master's, the boy's, weakness -- he clenched his fists silently.

If a combatman was nothing more than a thread fastened to the grand master's shattered heart--

'I will definitely become an unbreakable thread.'


In the midst of the sudden chaos, the man quietly looked back.

His companions, who had greatly diminished in number.

Their hideout, which was now only an apartment building.

The new hellish scene which was burned into his memories.

On the surface, all of these fresh memories were over, but the deaths of his comrades were not something he could easily recover from.

That incident had left scars on everyone's hearts to different degrees. The grand master had suggested using his power to erase those wounds, but not a single person had agreed to it.


They would look for the traitor and the heroes and exact their revenge. The first goal of the new Clock was not world domination nor the extinction of the human race -- it was an extremely personal grudge.

As he thought of all the possible ways this could end--

The man laughed.


All the weakness within him.

From the moment he acknowledged all of it squirming throughout him--

His weakness was instead changed to strength.


I want to be strong.

That's just how I feel.

But now I want everything.

Everything, everything, everything.

There are people I want to protect.

I now have beliefs I want to uphold.

All of that -- the happiness I wish for -- has already become my strength.


Even now I'm trying to grow stronger.

Without any reason, none at all.

But now I don't feel bad about that.

Because -- you don't need a reason to be happy.


And so--

I could finally become a "combatman."

"The Tragedy of #37564" -- Fin.



Silk said something very ordinary from behind him, as if she saw right through the man's thoughts as he quietly committed to his revenge.

"That's right… it's the first time I've seen your real face, #37564."

"Disappointed 'cause it's more normal than you thought?"

"No… I thought -- you have a very kind face."

In the end, #37564 couldn't find the words to respond to Silk's smile… The corners of his lips just turned up slightly.

He could do nothing but smile.





#37564: written "No. 37564" in Japanese, but about a third of the way through this story, I realized that, in my experience, # is almost always used in English rather than "no." So #37564 it is.

Honorifics: writing "#37564-san" hurts me deeply, so I ended up dropping the "-san" completely for the characters who use it, mostly lower-ranking Clock members.

Combatmen and kaijin: Since this seems to be loosely referencing Kamen Rider, I went with the terms used by that fandom. The word used for combatmen is 戦闘員. As far as I can tell kaijin is just generally used without an attempt at translation. These are humanoid villains with monster-like features. I'll go ahead and change the terminology if anyone's more familiar with the genre than me and can tell me how these are usually translated.

[1] Another untranslatable Japanese thing. "Boku wa, kisama ga kirai da." "Boku" is a first-person Japanese pronoun usually used by males that falls about midway up the formality scale -- not as polite as "watashi," but more so than "ore." On the other hand, "kisama" is a very rude second-person pronoun. It comes off as weird because of this contrast in formality.

[2] This is the first time the grand master switches to using the more polite pronoun "kimi" when addressing #37564.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the chapter.

    Japanese have this wordplay called goroawase where numbers are equated to kana due to their kun reading, on reading and english reading, so you get the following with the combatant numbers in this chapter:
    -#37564: MI-NA-GO-RO-SHI = "mass murder"
    -#29182: NI-KU-I-YA-TSU = "hateful/wonderful guy" ("nikui", for some reason, can mean both "hateful, abominable" and "admirable, wonderful")
    -#13871 : not wholly sure about this, but the 871 may be a "ha-na-i"; I don't know if the 13 is a "hitomi", "ichimi", "imi" or even "isu", among others.

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    1. Oh, thanks! Haha, I didn't even notice that. In that case, I'm pretty sure #13871 is "i-mi-ha-na-i", or "meaningless." Which it definitely isn't. Thanks, Narita.

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